I just saw a Coen brothers movie not made by them. “Leaves of Grass” was written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson and he even played one of the supporting roles in it too. He acted in several films by the brothers and directed 5 other movies already. The ambiance, the clever discussions, the colors, the off-beat characters, the combination of bucolic idyll and violence … all reminded me of the Coen brothers repertoire. But it wasn’t exactly a knock-off, it was original in many ways.
Edward Norton was brilliant. The previous sentence was almost unnecessary as he is usually quite one with the roles he plays. But in this case he was great both as an (over-)intellectual university professor of philosophy and as his weed-growing redneck brother. Norton really shined in this dual role at the opposite end of human spectrum in terms of accomplishment and attitudes. If for nothing else you should watch it for his performance.
I also liked the movie’s pace and editing. We think that we learn early on the two brothers’ motivations, but it is really at the end that we can understand them. Their relations with their troubled mother, played by the wonderful Susan Sarandon also had its secrets that were only unveiled to their full extent towards the end of the movie.
Then there was a host of great supporting actors and actresses. I didn’t even know that Danny Devito had a daughter, not to mention that she can act. Lucy looks a bit like his father and she inherited his sense of comic timing. ‘s daughter. I already mentioned that Nelson, the director was playing in the movie too. He was a bit clueless sidekick of the pot-grower brother, but his heart was made of gold. Good combination played out well. Melanie Lynskey, as the barefoot and pregnant wife was also ultra-realistic. Keri Russell as the hardcore fishing poetess stepped straight out of a Walt Whitman poem (whose book gave the movie’s title) and literally from the water to provide a balance of the two brothers respective selfishness. In short the supporting roles were well written and performed.
I only had two issues with the movie. For a while, I thought it might be slightly antisemitic. After all the major dope dealer of the are was a rich Jewish guy, who acted like a caricature of the stereotypical money hungry Jew. But this was countered by the dentist’s character who was struggling to make a living and was pathetic in his attempts. You could feel pity for him. Furthermore the synagogue they both attended was shown during a service, along with a sermon. This put them in a more human and holistic content. And at the end of the movie one of the redemptive scenes come from a conversation with the rabbi. These scenes convinced me that it was not antisemitic, despite the negative Jewish characters. There were other bad guys too, who were not Jewish, so at the end it felt balanced from this point of view too.
I also didn’t like the sudden and unexpected violence. First, it was shocking but the consistently violent re-actions to the original assault proved to me that it is very much part of the directorial intent. In retrospect, after watching the whole movie, it was necessary for the story’s arch, but it was still upsetting for me in its graphic details. I guess I am too sheltered for this kind of reality at the edge (or central) of Americana.
IMDB’s summary: An Ivy League professor is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother, a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord.